Over the past decade, my dogs have accumulated more frequent flier miles than most people I know. It wasn’t something I planned for, or even something I really wanted. Flying with pets is never a fun experience – there’s the stress (for them and myself), the paperwork, the wait, the “Don’t abandon me!” howls that get me lots of stares at the airport.
If it were up to me, I would never take my dogs on a plane. But I’ve lived in four countries in the past 12 years and leaving my dogs behind was never an option. So I had no choice but to figure out how to take them along, fun or not, and I ended up learning a few things along the way:
Lesson 1: You can’t help which dog you fall in love with.
It was never my intention to adopt dogs from different countries. In fact, given the choice, I wouldn’t have gone with even one. Traveling is a lot easier when you don’t have pets, so every time I added a furry member to my family, I knew exactly what I was signing up for: more love and more trouble.
My first international move took me and two cats from New York City to Siberia to teach English. After an incredibly long two flights and an arrival in -25 degree Fahrenheit weather, I settled in Russia for three years. Along the way, I lost one kitty and ended up with the world’s most hyper Cocker Spaniel.
My next trip took me to Vietnam with a cat and a dog, and I eventually fell in love with a little scrawny (and, it turned out, very sick) puppy peeking at me from a cage. It happened when I was on vacation in the north of Vietnam. I walked into an outdoor market, just in time to realize the dog in that cage was waiting to be sold as meat. I tried to walk away but couldn’t.
And so, by the time I moved to Thailand a year and a half later, I had a half-blind 12-year-old cat (Taima), a still-hyper Cocker Spaniel (Baxter), and a now-80-pound black beast that made people cross the street and walk the other way (Bac).
There are a lot of logistics involved in moving a big dog overseas. For starters, an airline-approved pet carrier should always be big enough for your dog to be able to stand up, lie down comfortably and turn around – a little tricky to measure when you have a goofball of a dog who refuses to turn around unless he can do it without touching the walls of a carrier at all.
There’s also tons of paperwork, which is always different depending on your country of destination, but includes health certificates, certain vaccines, sometimes special deworming medication, sometimes a doggie passport. Customs might be nice (the Russian officials were having too much fun commenting on the size of my cats to pay too much attention to the paperwork) or it might be a pain, so my motto has always been “be over-prepared” and take every little paper you think you might need with you. Having one too many papers is always better than being one paper short.
Lesson 2: There’s never a good reason to leave a pet behind.
It seems I’m always stumbling on stories of people who left their dogs behind when they moved abroad because it was too expensive, too difficult, too bothersome to take them along. The truth is that it’s not as hard as it seems, but you have to be willing to put in the time, effort and money to make it happen. There are flights to book, paperwork to get ready (and some countries are particularly difficult to get into) and things to organize.
Getting out of Russia was particularly hard, as the only vet in town authorized to give me the export paper I needed wanted proof that I had legally bought or adopted my Cocker Spaniel as opposed to – insert sarcasm here – stole him from somebody. And because of the way things were set up there, I couldn’t even see this vet until 48 hours before I had to fly. Imagine my desperation when I realized I had to come up with a paper that didn’t exist in a day or less. I ended up proving he was legally my dog thanks to a random photograph I had taken the day I got him – a great example of how sometimes you have to think on your feet to ensure your pet goes along with you.
Lesson 3: You need to start preparations early.
My move from Thailand to Prague required a special lab test because Europe is a rabies-free zone and Thailand isn’t. The test involves a vet in Thailand taking blood and sending it to an approved lab in England (in case you’re wondering, the blood is sent from Asia to Europe via FedEx, which I’ve always found rather fascinating and a little horrifying). There, the blood is tested to ensure your dog has enough antibodies and poses no risk – a process that takes two to three months. Once you receive the OK and an official certificate, you have to wait an additional 30 days before you can fly into Europe.
The lesson? Start your research early. A lot earlier than you think you should start. In fact, start so early that you feel a little ridiculous for starting then. If I had waited until the last minute to start preparing for the move to Prague, I would have been in big trouble. Tests like these are also very expensive, so finding out about them earlier allowed me to save and prepare for the expense.
There’s something else you have to keep in mind as you prepare for a long flight: your dog will hate the experience. While you might be tempted to sedate your dog to “make time pass faster,” the truth is that sedating a dog who’s about to go 36,000 feet up in the air can be a very dangerous idea. Instead, put one of your shirts and maybe your dog’s favorite blanket inside the carrier, give him an extra kiss and (if you’re like me) worry nonstop for the entire flight until you get to your destination.
Of course, I fell in love with another dog while living in Thailand. I spent my three years there neutering, rescuing and finding homes for stray dogs, and Rek was the one nobody wanted to adopt (she was the dog who looked “too Thai” and wasn’t considered special enough).
Now she has the life of a queen in snowy Prague. The boys don’t seem to mind too much, though.
Diana Bocco is a full-time writer and adventurer, whose work has been published in DiscoveryChannel.com, Yahoo! & Popular Mechanics.